Tuesday, February 28, 2012

On the Deadline and What a Difference a Year Makes

The Edmonton Oilers, as expected, were relatively quiet on what is typically one of the NHL's busiest days. Although Tambellini and company did make one splash in the trade market with a deal that was all but expected. Today the Oilers moved offensive defenceman Tom Gilbert to the Wild for steady, stay-at-home defenceman Nick Schultz. This trade however, unlike so many other Oilers deals of deadlines past, was not about dumping salary, selling assets, or moving a bad fit. This deal instead was a lateral move between two teams who were both looking to fill a void in their rosters. A hockey trade.

Tom Gilbert was originally acquired by the Oilers in 2004, when then GM Kevin Lowe made a trade with Colorado which sent Tommy Salo back the other way. At the time it seemed like a ridiculous deal, but now in retrospect, it was a move made with great foresight. Gilbert broke into the league in 2007-08 with a solid rookie campaign which saw him break a number of Paul Coffey's records for scoring by a rookie defenceman. He followed up that season with another impressive year in which he scored a career high 45 points. Things were looking up for number 77. But since then, it's been a case of diminishing returns from Gilbert as he's had to adapt to a bigger role on the Oilers blue line in recent years. While his offensive output this season has been limited to 3 goals and 14 assists, the other parts of his game appeared to finally be coming around. Forced into a top 2 role with the early season injury to Ryan Whitney, Gilbert started to incorporate a more physical element to his game and started to mature into more of a two-way defenceman. Although his play in his own end still didn't match his abilities in the other, Gilbert was playing with a new level of emotion not seen in years past. But unfortunately for Gilbert, another player on the Oilers blueline was starting to find his NHL game as well. If it wasn't for the significant strides that Jeff Petry has made in his game this season, Tambellini likely wouldn't have had the confidence to make this move today. Between Petry, Whitney, and Gilbert the Oilers back end was loaded with puck movers and something had to give.

In Nick Schultz the Oilers are getting a legitimate shut down defenceman who is solid in his own zone, and although not physically punishing, is positionally sound. While he certainly won't replace Tom Gilbert, he fills an equally important role on the Oilers blue line, the need for consistency and poise in our own end. Between Schultz and Smid, the Oilers now have a decent NHL shut down pairing that can hopefully compete against the likes of Henrik and Daniel, Datsyuk and Zetterberg, Thornton and Marleau, Carter and Richards etc. While the Oilers may have given up the best player in the deal today, the reality is that success in the NHL comes from the blue line out and after finishing 30th twice and sitting in 29th today, a change was needed. Hopefully today's deal will help to add balance and consistency to the young defensive corps moving forward.

In other news, the Oilers went 2 for 3 on the powerplay tonight in their win against the Jets. With those two goals tonight their powerplay now sits at an impressive 21.8%, which is good enough for first overall in the NHL. What a difference it's been compared to just a year ago. Last season the Oilers finished with the 4th worst PP at 14.5%. Adding the creativity of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to the finishing ability of Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall has done wonders for the man advantage. Not to mention, having Ales Hemsky to quarterback the 2nd unit doesn't hurt either. Not only has the PP seen a significant rise in success this season, but the PK has improved dramatically as well. A year ago the Oilers finished with the 29th ranked PK and today it sits at 14th overall. The best teams in the NHL typically owe their success in part to their special teams. If the Oilers are going to move forward into playoff, and perhaps cup contention in the coming years, they will need their PP and PK to continue to be a strength.

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

On Ales Hemsky and Ryan Whitney

This past year, two very important pieces of the Edmonton Oilers roster underwent two significant surgeries each to repair two critical body parts for the sport of hockey. Ales Hemsky underwent his second shoulder surgery in the past two years, while Ryan Whitney underwent ankle surgery, just after coming back from a second foot osteotomy the season prior. Both players were early first round picks in the NHL entry draft, going 13th overall in 2001 and 5th overall in 2002 respectively, and both are arguably currently entering the prime of their careers. Both players have had to deal with a pretty significant injury history in their young careers, but when healthy both have the potential to be game changers.

At his best, Ales Hemsky is a dynamic winger who can quarterback a powerplay and make opposing defenders look like pylons with his quick hands and high end skill. He has the vision to be a great playmaker and the ability to finish plays when he chooses to shoot the puck.  He also isn't afraid to go to the high traffic areas and take a hit to make a play, hence the two shoulder surgeries in two years. Like Hemsky, when he's at his peak, Ryan Whitney can largely influence a game. His puck moving ability allows him to control the point on the man-advantage, and his great first pass is a significant piece to the transition game of the Oilers.

In the past two seasons, Hemsky has played in just 69 games for the Oilers, posting 64 points. Whitney on the other hand, in that same time span has appeared in just 54 games and put up 38 points. Through two months of the 2011-12 season, Hemsky has already missed 11 games and Whitney has missed 17.  Yet despite the similarities between them: age, offensive ability, and injury history, the way in which these players are viewed in Oil Country is growing ever disparate.

With Ryan Whitney, despite his early struggles, fans and media alike seem to be willing to show patience and allow him to play his way back into form. His 1 point and -4 rating has been attributed to the significant time and games he's missed, and most are convinced that given enough time, the Ryan Whitney of last season will return, which he almost certainly will. With Hemsky however, Oil Country doesn't seem to have that kind of patience. The fact that he's off of his point-per-game pace and his hesitation to shoot the puck has been a large point of criticism, despite the fact that he has also missed a significant amount of time. The expectations for both players seems to be quite different across Oil Country. If it's unfair for fans to expect Whitney to immediately be an impact player in his return to the Oilers lineup, why is it fair for fans to expect the same of Hemsky?

There has been more and more trade rumblings involving Ales Hemsky these days. While of course his contract status plays a big part in it, in addition to his start to the year, it may be a bit premature to make a move that big.  Given his current level of play, Hemsky's value is probably at its low right now, and any move the Oilers were to make would net them something significantly short of what Oilers fans should want in return. Just because Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, and Eberle have been dominating to start the year, it doesn't mean Hemsky is all of a sudden expendable and should be tossed away. There is still almost 3 months until the NHL trade deadline. Between now and then, Tambellini and company need to figure out what Hemsky's level of commitment to this team is and how much of next year's salary cap they can afford to give him, should they choose to re-sign. If free agency is the route Hemsky chooses to take, then the Oilers have to move him, but not until February 27th. Having Hemsky in the lineup will help more than anything he could bring back in a trade right now. If Tambellini can get Colten Teubert, a 1st round pick and a 3rd round pick for Dustin Penner, then Oilers fans should also want something in that ballpark for Hemsky.

But just as fans have demonstrated a willingness to wait for Whitney to turn it around, Hemsky should at least be offered the same amount of patience. He'll play his way out of this slow start, and the Hemsky that Oilers fans know and used to love will eventually return, hopefully.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On Ryan Smyth and the Value of Leadership

Through 17 games of the 2011-12 regular season, the Oilers currently sit in 6th place in the West and 2nd in the Northwest, only 3 points behind the Wild with a game in hand.  The surprising start to the season has been the result of number of players performing better than Oilers fans could have hoped they would, with one standout being none other than Ryan Smyth.

Smyth has once again found the scoring touch that made him a 30-goal man four times in his NHL career.  Through the first 17 games, Smyth has scored an impressive 10-7-17, good enough for the team lead, with a +2 rating.   Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that Smyth is currently 2nd on the team with 29 PIMs, which has largely been the result of his willingness to get into the tough areas and battle for every puck.  The Oilers made the deal for Smyth this summer in the hopes that he would bring leadership into the dressing room and show the next generation of Oilers what it takes to be successful in the NHL.  So far it's been pretty obvious that he has done all that and more.  Of course no one expects Smyth to keep up this 48 goal and 82 point pace, but he will almost certainly improve on the 23-24-47 he scored last year in LA.  Whether it's being back in an Oilers uniform that has him motivated or another case of a player in his contract year, Smyth is proving his worth.  Points aside, it's the so-called intangibles that he brings to this roster that makes up his true value to this team.

The early success of Ryan Smyth in his return to the Orange and Blue however raises an interesting debate.  When he first came back to the Oilers, Smyth made it abundantly clear that his desire was to re-sign in Edmonton and likely finish his career here.  Smyth will be 36 years old when his current deal expires.  Oilers fans assumed he would take a hometown discount on his next deal, but if he manages to get back to 30 goals this year, how much of a discount will it be?  With Hemsky's deal also set to expire and Hall, Eberle, and MPS a year away from RFA status, how much can the Oilers afford to offer Smyth on his next deal?  How much is leadership worth moving forward?  Ryan Smyth is definitely an important piece of this growing roster that the Oilers needs to keep around, but smart cap management will be key.  They say the intangibles are not easily quantifiable, but Tambellini and company will need to to do exactly that between now and this summer.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

On Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at Home and Away

Through the first seven regular season games with the Edmonton Oilers, rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has impressed nearly everyone who has seen him play and currently leads all NHL rookies in scoring at 5-2-7 with a +2 rating.  With two games left to play before his entry level deal officially begins, there has certainly been a lot of positives to take from Nugent-Hopkins' game.  While largely considered a playmaker in junior, RNH has demonstrated early that he possesses a great finishing ability as well. With 5 goals already this year he currently sits in a tie for 4th in the NHL.  Ryan Nugent-Hopkins through seven games has an impressive shooting percentage of 29.4% on 17 shots on goal. To put that into perspective, the red hot Phil Kessel has connected on 33.3% of his 27 shots on goal. Of course it is unrealistic to expect those kinds of percentages to last the entire season, for both RNH and Kessel, but it gets the point across. Last season Corey Perry and Steven Stamkos finished the year at 17.2% and 16.5% respectively. Helping Ryan Nugent-Hopkins find this early success are his two wingers. With Taylor Hall on his left and Jordan Eberle to his right, the trio of youngsters have formed one of the league's most dynamic lines. Playing with those two certainly helps create time and space for RNH to do his damage. The top end skill and hockey sense from all three forwards combined creates a lot of chances for the Oilers in the offensive zone. When this trio hits the ice, opposing teams immediately start thinking about defense rather than generating offense, which is what every team hopes for from its first line. Another important factor contributing to the success of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are the favorable matchups that the coaching staff has sent him out against. This is no more evident than when you compare the numbers at home and on the road.

The Oilers have so far played 5 games at Rexall and 2 games as the visitor this young season. Although this isn't a large sample size to examine, the numbers for RNH in blue versus white are interesting. In 5 home games, Nugent-Hopkins is 5-2-7 with a +3 rating, while in his 2 road games, he's 0-0-0 with a -1 rating. Another interesting discrepancy is in his faceoff %. At Rexall he's 29.2%, which is not very impressive as it is, but on the road he's even worse at 15.4%, possibly due to the fact that he's required to put his stick down first. The coaching staff has already addressed this issue by having Shawn Horcoff take the draws on the powerplay and Horcoff or Belanger taking his defensive zone faceoffs, with the only drawback being the cost of his ice time. Clearly home ice advantage has played a big part in RNH's early offensive production this year. Having Tom Renney be able to pick and choose when to send out Kid Line 2.0 definitely puts Nugent-Hopkins in the position to succeed. However, If RNH is going to develop into a consistent NHL threat, he will need to learn how to produce on the road. Although with the great hockey sense he possesses, it should only be a matter of time before those numbers even out. Unfortunately for Oilers management, games 8 and 9 are both at Rexall Place and they will have to make a decision on the fate of RNH with only those two road games in mind.

Road woes or not, it's becoming more and more clear that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is ready for the show. He's creating chances more often than not, he's only been on the ice for one even strength goal against, and he's quaterbacking a much improved Oilers powerplay. More importantly RNH has shown that he can rise to the challenge and elevate his game when called out. Twice this season he's been benched by the coaching staff late in the third period of games, and twice he's bounced back the next game with a strong showing, scoring a hat trick in one and the game winner in the other. Consistency is something that all NHL rookies struggle with early, it took Taylor Hall nearly 25 games last season to find his, but the ability to recognize and learn from mistakes and improve upon them is important for a player trying to find that consistency. Tom Renney has always stated that the decision on RNH will be based on his entire body of work, and so far that body of work would suggest that he'll be in an Oilers uniform in Colorado on October 28th in game 10 of the regular season.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

On Game 1 of 9 for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins played in his first career regular season NHL game last night, and what a debut it was. The game against the Penguins was the season opener for the Edmonton Oilers, but also the first of a nine game tryout for the 2011 first overall pick. Playing on a line with 2010 first overall pick Taylor Hall and veteran playmaker Ales Hemsky on the top line certainly provided RNH with every opportunity to make an impact. He played just over 17 minutes, including 3:53 on the powerplay. While he scored the game tying goal late in the third period to help send the game to overtime, he did a lot of good things before that as well.

Nugent-Hopkins certainly did not look out of place skating on the top line and the first unit powerplay. He showed off his great vision and passing and set up Hall and Hemsky with a few good chances. Even 5-on-5 he was able to play his game and didn't look outmatched physically. The puck seemed to follow him around the ice all night. As for the special teams, having both Hemsky and Nugent-Hopkins playing together on the powerplay was successful in creating another point of attack. Teams in the past knew that the man advantage for the Oilers was run through Hemsky, allowing them to concentrate their efforts on him. But now having another solid puck mover on the half boards adds another threat to the powerplay. While, they didn't score with the man advantage last night, it certainly looked better than it did last year already. It's still early in the season but let's hope that it's a sign of things to come as the powerplay will need to be effective if the Oilers are going to end up on the right side of these 1-goal games more often than not this year.

Of course it wasn't all positives for Nugent-Hopkins last night. His numbers in the faceoff dot were terrible. He finished the night at a measly 13.3% on the draw. While 5-on-5 the Oilers can rely on Horcoff, Belanger, and Lander in the dot, on the powerplay, Nugent-Hopkins will need to improve or else the Oilers will be starting every man advantage by chasing the puck back into their own zone. However winning faceoffs is a skill that can be taught and improved, and luckily for Nugent-Hopkins he should have a few good teachers to learn from on this roster.

Overall it was an impressive debut for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and if he plays the next 8 games like he did against the Penguins, his spot on the roster should be a lock.

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